Thanksgiving is a holiday at which we generally know what to expect: the roast turkey, the sweet potatoes with mini-marshmallows, the pumpkin pie just like grandma used to make. Tradition is a wonderful thing; it gives the annual meal more meaning.
Still, sometimes it's fun to mess with the orthodoxy. Thus have many influential foodstuffs been born, from El Bulli's foam to the Double Stuf Oreo. So we asked some Boston-area chefs, ones with strong points of view and very definite - and different - styles, to mess with Thanksgiving.
We took five building blocks of the holiday meal - turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie - and divvied them up. Go nuts, we told the chefs; make them your own.
Tim Wiechmann, who spins local ingredients on their heads at T.W. Food, takes on turkey (and takes on the idea of having a roasted bird at all). Ana Sortun brings to stuffing the Turkish flavors found at her restaurant, Oleana. Sweet potatoes appear often in Japa nese cooking, and o ya's Tim Cushman riffs on those; his dish encapsulates the flavors of that country in the fall. The cranberry sauce created by Ming Tsai, who combines Eastern and Western influences at Blue Ginger and on TV, will make you forget the canned stuff. And Rick Billings, pastry chef at the innovative Clio, creates a pumpkin pie that you can't even slice.
Tim Wiechmann, T.W. Food"Today the side of veal came in, the cows, the whole pigs," says chef Tim Wiechmann. At T.W. Food in Cambridge, "it really is trying to get the sourcing to the plate. And in the middle there's us, trying to be creative and come up with new ways to serve things."
Another one of his core principles, he says, is using historical food and very minimally processed ingredients. And so the Thanksgiving turkey becomes a sausage made from a wild or heritage breed bird, served with fried Ipswich clams. "It's surf and turf," he says. "It's local and different and historical and natural and creative all bundled together."
If you're intrigued but not up for a sausage-making project, Wiechmann will be serving the dish at T.W. Food all week. As for his own Thanksgiving, he plans to head to someone else's house. "I like it when other people make the turkey," he says. "I don't have Thanksgiving family traditions because none of my family's American. They're German."
He laughs. "Maybe that's why I made a sausage. If it can be made into a sausage, I'm going to do it."
Ming Tsai, Blue Ginger"I don't want to say turkey's boring," Ming Tsai says, "but it's not the most ebullient piece of protein out there. Thanksgiving's all about the fixings, anyway. The typical roasted plastic-pop-up thing needs help."
Help is here in the form of his fresh cranberry sauce, given extra zip with a blast of ginger, then rounded out and toned down with orange juice and brown sugar. "I love fresh cranberries," says the chef and host of PBS's "Simply Ming." "I love craisins and the ones in the jelly in the can. But the fruit itself has so much more punch, so much more acid and brightness."
This sauce is similar to the one he'll make for the holiday, though he may add lemongrass, lime leaf, or a couple of chilies. (His kids don't mind the heat.) "I've always done a version of a fresh warm cranberry sauce since I can remember," he says. "This is a very easy recipe to do. You can make it the day before, which I recommend - that way it builds in flavor - then reheat it in a saucepan. Heating adds another luxurious level."
Tsai serves his sauce with a fried turkey, "which does make it an exciting piece of protein," he says. "The one drawback is you don't get to make a great soup from it. Last year I bought a lot of chicken bones and threw in the pieces that were still OK. My favorite thing is shredded meat and rice in soup. It's the thing you eat at 9 p.m. when you're hungry because you ate dinner at 2. You can only have so many pieces of pumpkin pie."
Ana Sortun, OleanaAna Sortun loves traditional stuffing. "It's my favorite thing for Thanksgiving," she says. "I love the butteriness of it and the whole bread thing and I didn't really want to change that." So rather than do a wholesale revision, she tweaked tradition with ingredients she uses frequently at Oleana.
"From time to time we do something called Circassian chicken. We make a sauce, almost a mayonnaise, from bread and walnuts and stir it into shredded chicken, then add walnut oil and cilantro, and this is a spread or a chicken salad. The flavors of the stuffing were inspired by this Circassian chicken dish, which is one of my favorite combinations of flavors."
To re-create butteriness without using butter, Sortun substitutes walnut oil. "The Thanksgiving meal is like a bomb with all this heavy stuff. Walnut oil is a way to get some healthier fat into it." And leeks replace onions. "The reason I chose leeks is that they're amazing right now and should be at every farmers' market till Thanksgiving." Her husband, Chris Kurth, runs Siena Farms in Sudbury. Their holiday meal produce will come from the farm, which is named for their daughter, and they'll celebrate the holiday there with family and friends.
This stuffing will not make an appearance. "I don't use any of my spices at Thanksgiving," Sortun says. "We're one of those very traditional families. If I started putting tahini in the mashed potatoes, they wouldn't be too happy."
Tim Cushman, o ya"Japan is all about the seasons," Tim Cushman says. His sweet potato dish incorporates chestnuts to evoke the fall. You won't be surprised to learn that it does not include marshmallows. Sweet potatoes with marshmallows, Cushman says, "is one of the few foods I don't like."
He had been experimenting with Japanese pumpkin and curry flavors at o ya in the Leather District, where sashimi and sushi are served side by side with intricate cooked Japanese dishes. The curry, he thought, would work equally well with sweet potatoes. "At the restaurant," he says, "I might do something trickier with the potatoes, herbs, and garnishes; I tried to keep this as pure and simple as I could, without getting in the way of the sweet potatoes."
That's reflective of the way he cooks in general. "I don't like to mask what you're eating," he says. "If you're eating hamachi, I want you to be able to taste that even if there's something else with it. I want to complement it."
For his own Thanksgiving, he says, "we usually keep it simple. We go to family's house or get some down time and maybe cook the meal ourselves and relax. Sweet potatoes I would probably just roast in their skins. They have so much flavor on their own, all you really need is butter, salt, and pepper."
Rick Billings, Clio"The concept for this came from trying to create something very light from an ingredient that is usually very heavy," says Rick Billings of Clio. "So we started trying to make a roasted pumpkin Jell-O with whipped cream, a perfect light fall dessert, being that I'm from Utah, and our state dessert is Jell-O. In the middle of the process, while the liquid was still hot, I found it presented itself on the palate much better."
That's how pumpkin pie found its way into a glass. All the flavors are here - cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, and so on. There's just no crust. At the restaurant, however, when liquid pumpkin pie is served, the crust is present. "I steep flavors of pie crust - toasted flavors, butter, and sugar - into milk and froth that cappuccino style," Billings says. "We'd serve that on top of the 'pie.' It's almost like the head on beer."
Billings's desserts often take familiar flavors and transform them into something unfamiliar "texture-wise and technique-wise," he says. In December, for example, Clio will be doing chicory eggnog served in eggshells. "I'm not trying to wow anybody with crazy, obscure ingredients or really random combinations of flavors that don't make sense."
That sensibility holds true for Thanksgiving, as well. "I love cranberry sauce out of a can. I like Stovetop stuffing. I love pumpkin pie more than anything. But here we were trying to do something a little different."